What a difference a year can make. On July 6, 1775, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, issued the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. It had been drafted by a radical in Congress, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, but revised — “toned down,” it is said, — by the leading conservative and advocate of reconciliation with Great Britain, John Dickinson, the wealthy Philadelphia lawyer and politician.
The timing of the Declaration is significant. The Battles of Lexington and Concord had taken place in April 1775, Bunker Hill in June 1775. As the Declaration stated:
General Gage, who in the course of the last year had taken possession of the town of Boston, in the province of Massachusetts Bay, and still occupied it as a garrison, on the 19th day of April, sent out from that place a large detachment of his army, who made an unprovoked assault on the inhabitants of the said province, at the town of Lexington, as appears by the affidavits of a great number of persons, some of whom were officers and soldiers of that detachment, murdered eight of the inhabitants, and wounded many others. From thence the troops proceeded in warlike array to the town of Concord, where they set upon another party of the inhabitants of the same province, killing several and wounding more, until compelled to retreat by the country people suddenly assembled to repel this cruel aggression…. The inhabitants of Boston being confined within that town by the General, their Governor, and having, in order to procure their dismission, entered into a treaty with him, it was stipulated that the said inhabitants, having deposited their arms with their own magistrates, should have liberty to depart, taking with them their other effects. They accordingly delivered up their arms, but in open violation of honor, in defiance of the obligation of treaties, which even savage nations esteemed sacred, the Governor ordered the arms deposited as aforesaid, that they might be preserved for their owners, to be seized by a body of soldiers; detained the greatest part of the inhabitants in the town, and compelled the few who were permitted to retire to leave their most valuable effects behind.
Foreshadowing another declaration that Congress would pass later, this Declaration listed serious charges against Empire. The Parliament, it said,
have undertaken to give and grant our money without our consent, though we have ever exercised an exclusive right to dispose of our own property; statutes have been passed for extending the jurisdiction of courts of admiralty and vice-admiralty beyond their ancient limits; for depriving us of the accustomed and inestimable privilege of trial by jury, in cases affecting both life and property; for suspending the legislature of one of the colonies; for interdicting all commerce to the capital of another; and for altering fundamentally the form of government established by charter and secured by acts of its own legislature solemnly confirmed by the crown; for exempting the “murderers” of colonists from legal trial and, in effect, from punishment; for erecting in a neighboring province, acquired by the joint arms of Great Britain and America, a despotism dangerous to our very existence; and for quartering soldiers upon the colonists in time of profound peace. It has also been resolved in Parliament that colonists charged with committing certain offenses shall be transported to England to be tried.
Thus, “We are reduced to the alternative of choosing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers, or resistance by force. The latter is our choice. We have counted the cost of this contest and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery. …With hearts fortified with these animating reflections, we most solemnly, before God and the world, declare that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverance, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with our [one] mind resolved to die free men rather than live slaves.”
However, the document declared, “We have not raised armies with ambitious designs of separating from Great Britain establishing independent states.”
George III was unpersuaded. A month after the Declaration was issued, writes historian Gordon Wood, the king “proclaimed the colonies in open rebellion. In October he publicly accused them of aiming at independence.”
July 4, 1776
Then, almost a year to the day after Congress forswore independence while justifying taking up arms against the Empire, it issued an explanation for why, just two days earlier, it approved the final language explaining why it had moved for independence. That explanation is what we call the Declaration of Independence.
July 4, 1776, was roughly six months after Thomas Paine published Common Sense, the pamphlet that moved a people. In it Paine wrote, “For God’s sake, let us come to a final separation…. O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
That the resolution on independence and then the Declaration itself should have followed that stirring call seems entirely natural.
The Declaration of Independence was, and remains, an extraordinary document — self-conscious in its embrace of the radical liberal tradition developed by the Levellers during the seventeenth-century English Civil Wars and “Cato” (John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon), whose pamphlets, first published in England in the early 1720s, were repeatedly reprinted in the colonies, bringing a radicalized version of John Locke to the Americans.
To appreciate the connections, read the words of Leveller Richard Overton: “[B]y natural birth all men are equally and alike borne to like propriety, liberty and freedom.” And “Cato”: ‘[L]iberty is the unalienable right of all mankind….[T]he nature of government does not alter the natural right of men to liberty, which is in all political societies their due.”
As historian Bernard Bailyn has shown, it was “Cato” and other radical liberals who seeded the ground for the American Revolution, which was an intellectual event every bit as much as a military one.
This does not undercut Jefferson’s accomplishment — and let us not forget John Adams’s role in promoting the states’ own crucial (though forgotten) moves for independence or in floor-managing the Declaration in Congress. Jefferson never claimed the ideas were original. Natural rights, including the right of revolution, had been “in the air” for years, in America and Europe. Assertions “that it [the Declaration] contained no new ideas, that it is a commonplace compilation, its sentiments hacknied in Congress for two years before … may all be true,” Jefferson later wrote. “Of that I am not to be the judge…. I know only that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before.”
He may not have come up with anything not expressed before, but he was certainly in the right place at the right time. Thus Jefferson’s words have taken their proper place among liberty’s greatest writings.